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When to Make the Most of Collaboration (& When to Opt Out)

Make the right choice for you

At Tracking Wonder, we’ve baked collaboration into much of what we’ve created.

Our free international community of entrepreneurs and creatives fosters alliances, partnerships, and networking.

I’ve collaborated with other brands to produce events. I’ve built Tracking Wonder’s own team around true collaboration. I’ve facilitated business artist meetups around the world based on the idea of collaboration.

And I’ve helped business leaders, entrepreneurs, and creatives finesse how to develop effective collaborations.

Collaboration – be it through conversation, community, or working with another person – can be electric, offering a powerful stimulant for your creative brain.

Conversely, there will be times when collaboration is a drain, and what you need most is solitude.

The careful balancing act between collaboration and solitude looks differently for different people but there are a few universal principles to help you decide when to collaborate, and when it is you might want to sit alone with your thoughts.

And there is one surprisingly simple, yet vital, ingredient that’s needed in order to make either collaboration or solitude effective.

We’ve been troubled by how to negotiate solitude vs collaboration within the world of business for a few decades.

In the 1980’s, studies were conducted to find out what it was that American employees wanted in the workplace. More than 50% of employees wanted more space for concentration, and so it was that the 90’s “cubicle nation” (as Pamela Slim called it at the time) was born.

By the late ’90s, the trend had almost completely reversed. Now more than 50% said they needed more access to co-workers, and 40% wanted more interaction. And so, for the past 15 years, American workplaces have pushed the open plan culture where all workers see each other, run into each other, drop in on each other.`

You can already guess what happened next.

According to one informal survey, 58% of high-performing employees say they need more quiet spaces for problem-solving – and the majority of them now find their workplaces noisy and distracting.

Another comprehensive study which looked at the experiences of 40,000 workers in 300 U.S. offices found that overwhelmingly, the benefits of people being close to each other did not outweigh the negative side effects of losing privacy and being distracted.

This highlights a major tension between the desire for solitude and to enjoy the positive benefits of collaboration. The vital ingredient, the “secret” that many people miss, is that you don’t have to pick just one or the other: the most optimal work environment to be in is one which allows for collaboration and solitude.

And if you are a business of one or if you are building a business of remote workers and contractors – which is the case for more and more American businesses – then you still want to respect the mix of remote collaboration and deliberate solitude.

Make a Choice: deliberate solitude or deliberate collaboration

In Episode 5 of the Tracking Wonder Podcast, I talked with author, entrepreneur and business consultant Pamela Slim and with entrepreneur, author, and teacher Leo Babauta, about the essential elements of collaboration versus solitude.

For both of them, a pattern emerged. Both were happy, in either long term or short term creative ventures, to work and develop ideas with collaborators and community. They could thrive on the energy that’s sparked by collaborative efforts.

But both, like myself, are careful to make time for deliberate solitude where they can deep dive into their ideas, and enjoy the opportunity to be involved with their own process.

The major condition, and the magic ingredient for solitude or collaboration to be effective? Choice.

Choose solitude. Make time to enjoy in solitude, to let it allow you to reflect, develop and explore your ideas.

Choose company. Engage with and spark off the energy of collaboration and interacting with other people.

To help you make the motivating choices, consider asking yourself these questions:

  • If you work at a brick and mortar organization, how much solitude do you need in order to advance your ideas? Whether it’s in the company you work for or your own side gig, establish what true collaboration looks like in your workplace, and how and where can you get the solitude to be productive.
  • If you’re working as an entrepreneur or in your own business, how are you making time for solitude to do the deep dive work on your business, and not just in your business where you’re checking off your to-do lists?
  • Once you pocket the time for solitude, how do you have the self-efficacy and discipline to use that time most productively? Consider using apps such as SelfControl or Freedom to aid your ability to be solitude well without distraction.

Make the most of collaborative conversation

When you are in actual collaboration, be aware of how your own psychology can thwart or optimize collaboration. Consider, for instance, the implicit biases we can form toward our teammates and collaborators.

We Westerners size up things more so than other people. That’s in part what University of Michigan psychologist Richard Nisbett’s research has demonstrated in The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why.

Our Western culture encourages our minds to size up, box in, and categorize people and situations more automatically than Asians, according to the research. We automatically experience the world in terms of objects instead of relationships.

Whether you agree or not, you’ve probably noticed that when in social situations and dialogue, your mind can race with automatic signals of figuring out, or even judging, the other person – or, worse, yourself.

When in collaboration, repeat to yourself, “Open up. Don’t size up.” See what happens. You can use your internal language center as a way to shift the mind’s focus, which in turn can affect your emotions positively.

Imagine the space between you and your collaborator as a continuum of ideas, filled with potential new wonder. It’s up to you to keep that continuum open and fertile with possibility. What may seem, at first, like a completely random idea may give you your next business or creative breakthrough.

And be sure that you block off time for solitude in order to help you work on that creative breakthrough. Solitude allows thoughts and reflection, and for you to develop your ideas. Just like workplaces that allow for both solitude and collaboration, it’s important to give your mind the same choice.

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